The cars : Austin Kimberley development story

The Austin Kimberley and Tasman, and their Morris-badged cousins, were an interesting development of the BMC 1800/2200 reserved for the Antipodean markets only. They featured conventional three-box styling and were the first cars to use the six-cylinder version of the E-Series engine.

Built between 1970 and late 1972, unsold stocks of Kimberley and Tasman model remained on sale after the Leyland P76 was launched the following year.

Austin Kimberley: the thinking man’s BMC 1800/2200

Austin Kimberley
Austin Kimberley in its natural habitat. Four-headlight front was reserved for the posher Kimberley, while the cheaper Tasman received a pair of round headlamps

The Austin Kimberley and Austin Tasman were developed by Leyland Australia as a replacement for the Austin 1800. These cars were styled in Australia to reflect local tastes went under the codename YDO13. Both models went under the X6 name, and were unusual in their market for being front-wheel drive, and offered in four- and six-cylinder forms.

Unlike the BMC 1800, which were clearly designed for European tastes, the Kimberley was designed from the outset to be a six-seater (as the Tasman), and the boot was necessarily large – again to cater for local tastes. Interestingly, the Kimberley retained the 1800’s side doors and much of its centre section, aside from a 3in stretch in wheelbase, but the doors required new pressings anyway, as the handles needed to be recessed in order to meet Australian Design Rules requirements.

The Kimberley would end up being the first car from the BMC/Leyland stable to be powered the E6-Series engine.  This was a six-cylinder version of the four-cylinder E-Series that debuted in the Austin Maxi and was unusual (for the time) in featuring a chain-driven overhead camshaft. Like the Maxi’s engine, the Kimberley’s power unit was extremely compact for a straight-six, thanks to its siamesed bores and, as it shared the bore and stroke of the 1485cc four, it had a modest engine capacity of 2227cc. Maximum power was 10obhp in the Tasman and 113bhp for the twin-carburettor Kimberley.

The 2.2-litre E6-Series engine wouldn’t make it to the BMC 2200 until 1972 – and, in Australia (and South Africa), it would end up being enlarged to 2622cc (using the Maxi 1750’s bore and stroke measurements) for the Leyland P76. This larger unit wasn’t used in any European applications, although the Rover SD1 ended up being a recipient via the interesting Rover SDX.

X6 model differences

The cheaper sister of the Austin Kimberley - the Tasman. Note the single headlamp front end.
The cheaper sister of the Austin Kimberley – the Tasman. Note the single headlamp front end

The Tasman and Kimberley weren’t hugely different, with the cheaper car receiving the simpler six-seater interior, a lower-powered engine and four-headlamp grille. They were launched in 1970, and were upgraded to Mk2 specification (using the codename YDO19) in late 1971. Leyland Australia also designed a pickup version, but that never left the drawing board.

In the end, the Kimberley and Tasman were far from being the success Leyland Australia hoped for them. These front-wheel drive cars were viewed with suspicion by Australian buyers and, despite being hugely commodious inside, they weren’t large enough to compete with the Chrysler Valiant, Ford Falcon and Holden Kingswood. It wouldn’t be until Leyland Australia wheeled out the P76 in 1973 that it felt like the company had a car capable of competing effectively with the local opposition – and that was compromised by the closure of its maker late in 1974.

However, the mothership in the UK didn’t completely ignore the X6 models. They would end up forming the basis for the Vanden Plas 1800 concept (below). It’s also worth noting that the Kimberley was also sold in New Zealand as the Morris Kimberley, where it also enjoyed a foreshortened production run.

According to BMC historian Chris Cowin, launching the 1800 and 2200 MkIII with the X6’s body was the original plan (the 1969 BMC minutes appear to indicate) but it appears to have fallen victim to cost cutting. This was perhaps down to body re-tooling costs, which would have been higher in the UK than Australia given respective production volumes. This might also explain why Vanden Plas ended up reworking a 1.8-litre X6 prototype into the VP1800.

The Kimberley is now an interesting note in BMC history, and one that shows how the ungainly 1800 could have been made a little more mainstream for the UK market with a little re-engineering.

Austin Kimberley formed the basis of the Vanden Plas 1800 prototype.
Austin Kimberley formed the basis of the Vanden Plas 1800 prototype
Keith Adams
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  1. I think they missed a trick with ADO17/3. MK III 1800 – could have been 1800 morris/austin Tasman front hatchback, Tasman 2200 morris/austin TF hatchback Tasman saloon and then continue the 18/85 and the 22/110 Wolseleys as a hatch and saloon with the standard front (VP grille) for the 18/85 and the VP front for the 22/110.

    An estate is also possible since one has been made as a custom.. And I wonder if the self levelling from the landlobster could be fitted to the estate?

    I still don’t understand why blmc/bl never seemed to exploit their platforms even slightly.

  2. To me it would have made sense to use restyle as a basis for launching the E6 in Europe rather dropping it into the aged 1800 and dropping the 1800 when the 1750 maxi was launched.

    • Launching the Mk3 1800 and 2200 with that new body was the original plan (the 1969 BMC minutes appear to indicate) but it appears to have fallen victim to cost cutting – perhaps because body re-tooling costs would have been higher in the UK than Australia given respective production volumes.

  3. A minor correction if I may be allowed : ) – the Austin 1800 was not sold in Australia as the “Austin Freeway” but as the Austin 1800 (Mk1 and Mk2) as in the UK. (The Australian Austin Freeway was the six cylinder 2.4 litre version of the A60 Cambridge which Australia built between 1962 and 1965). However the Australian Austin 1800 was exported briefly to New Zealand (in 1969-1970) badged “BMC Freeway” – probably the only passenger car to be badged “BMC” on the grille rather than Austin or Morris.

    Another interesting detail about the X6 Tasman/Kimberley which often gets overlooked is that their wheelbase was three inches longer than the Austin 1800.

    • To which I add:

      X6s only had the E-series 2200 six; locally made E4s were used in the 1500/Nomad manual and Australian built Marina 1500/1750.

      Morris badged X6s were sold only in NZ as there were still separate Austin and Nuffield brands dealer chains but, unlike the 1800s, all were made in one CKD factory – Austin’s.

      Only the manual Tasman had the bench seat.

      Although they were renowned for silly faults like manual gear levers coming adrift (happened regularly to a friend’s car), the experience of a relative with fairly new manual and automatic Australian assembled cars showed they could be reliable and durable. I recall adequate performance as the six was on the small side by Australian car standards but comfort, ride, equipment and interior finish was ahead of the Big Three’s products. The X6s also set the stage for the small numbers of English assembled 2200s (and the odd Mk3 1800) shipped to NZ in 1973-4.

  4. My parents ran an Austin Tasman, I remember it seemed to suit our young family better than the huge crude Fords and Holdens their friends had. It filled a niche in the market though more aimed at 6 cylinder Toranas than the Kingswood.

    The thing to remember is that until about 1973 there weren’t many Japanese cars in Australia, so the BMC product even if flawed had a genuine market. Then VW sold the Clayton plant to Nissan, Chrysler got into bed with Mitsubishi. (Toyota was already there via AMI in the 60s)

    Geopolitical big picture was that once Britain joined the EEC the Oz government need to find new export markets so basically invited the Japanese car industry in as a quid pro quo for opening up the Japanese market for Coal/Iron Ore/Beef

  5. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the E Series engines use a chain driven camshaft, not belt driven as stated in the story?.

  6. Just a correction there regarding the E4 & E6 engines… they had a chain driven overhead camshaft, not a belt drive as stated in this article

  7. The base model Tasman is still very plain looking. Surprised they lengthened the wheelbase as the landcrab already had a very long wheelbase, and the long wheelbase is one of the reasons it looked “awkward”

    • I think the 1800 looks odd because it’s a long wheelbase in relation to the length of the car, looks like the wheels are in the wrong place. With the X6 saloon body an extra couple of inches makes sense – but whether they could have gotten away with it with the flying buttock 1800 I don’t know – and if they were making both an updated short body (maybe a hatchback) and the X6 at the same time – that might explain why it didn’t happen – it would have been quite costly. Plus if the X6 is longer, and the plan was just to replace with X6 wouldn’t that compound the size perception problem? Or by then had that issue faded away with the bigger competition?

    • The wheelbase of the X6 cars (108.12 in) was almost 3 inches more than the 1800, but the car itself was 8.5 inches longer. Nearly all of this extra length went into the nose/engine compartment – there was no increase in interior passenger space. This was all part and parcel of attempting to “pass off” the Tasman/Kimberley as valid members of Australia’s “family sedan” market which was huge and where Leyland Australia were not represented (but would be from 1973 with P76) as Keith has written. The 1800 had the required interior space for that segment and they were trying to make it look the part. There was no real need to extend the engine compartment to fit the 2200 engine with front-mounted radiator as the UK Austin/Morris 2200 demonstrated. The principal aim was to give the car a “big car look” with the stubby bonnet of the 1800 replaced by a much bigger expanse of steel. In the UK context there was not that requirement (although the 18-22/Princess which was being conceived at this time ended up even longer overall than X6).

      One can speculate as to whether, if the new styling had been introduced in the UK for the Mk3 facelift, the longer wheelbase and overall length would have been adopted also (turning the car into a sort of FWD Granada). I’ve not taken a tape measure to it but I believe the Vanden Plas prototype to retain the original 1800 wheelbase and length. It shares the rear end of the X6 cars but has a specific front end (similar in fact to the existing Wolseley 18/85). A Mk3 Austin-Morris 1800/2200 could have had a shorter version of the X6 front end styling (strengthening corporate identity with Clubman and Maxi) or (if money was tight) the sheet metal of the nose could have been left unchanged from the Mk2. In practice Austin Morris were heavily absorbed by Marina and then Allegro development at the turn of the decade around 1970, money was very tight, the Mk3 1800/2200 programme appears to have slipped and in the end they elected to not change the styling at all except for cosmetics ….

  8. Could an earlier European version of the X6 have done with a Pinninfarina touch akin to the later Peugeot 604, see vague similarities between the two aside from the front end of the X6 (VP 1800 prototype excepted) needing more work?

  9. For the period I would have thought that Vanden Plas car was quite handsome – especially considering it’s 1800 connections.

  10. I have always fault this was a fascinating mess for BMC and BLMC. Firstly, if the Australian business knew that FWD was an issue with their home buyers, why didn’t they base the Tasmin/Kimberely on the 3000? The engineering had already been done so just a tweek to the body styling.
    Secondly why did BLMC not use the same design for a refresh in Europe? Money may have been tight but doing a restyle would have made the car look contemporary against the Mk2 Cortina?
    I think this just shows the sheer bloody mindfulness and lack of joined up thinking within BMC and then BLMC.

    • I’ve also wondered why the X6’s weren’t based on the Austin 3 litre as well, if combined with the RWD chassis and X6 styling upgrades that would have solved the negative problems that the 1800 faced in the Australian market.

  11. An interesting car would have been the Austin 3 Litre body with the P76 2.6 litre engine. The biggest problem with the Kimby was that they overheated because an engine stay was included to improve smoothness and this stay blocked off some of the flow for the coolant. The otter switches in the radiator also failed with monotonous regularity. That said it was a very good car for covering long distances in. Leyland Australia like Ford used to rely on the customer to do the development work or that is how it seemed to me. The P76 suffered the same problems except they also had to be built on a production line designed for the 1800/ Kimberley so there was a lot of rectification work done on doors because the P76 was a much wider car. They could not get Leyland UK to release extra funding to widen the line.

  12. Compared to the mediocrity of the Marina and its stablemates in the UK, these cars look rather good. The story of this company seems to be one of complete chaos, lack of co-ordination, and missed opportunities – maybe the management were too preoccupied with cash flow issues and labour disruptions. You look back to the situation 40 years ago and still feel the need to shout ‘Get a grip!’ on the lot of them.

  13. I can remember the Kimberley and Tasman well. Whilst initially greeted with enthusiasm the car quickly developed a notorious reputation that killed sales. I can think of overheating, engine problems, poor build quality. It is remembered as being seriously underdeveloped and in true Leyland style of the day consumers were the test bed. It is a sad chapter in Australian automotive history. The replacement, the P76 perhaps enjoys the worst reputation of any Australian made car. It is still know as ‘ the lemon’ unfairly I think It again suffered from underdevelopment, terrible supply problems and poor build quality.

  14. Leyland Australia had some rotten luck that saw them close down in 1975. Aussies wanted their cars to be big, reliable and able to take high mileages with ease, no one would seriously want to take a car into the outback that would overheat and break down at night. While the Kimberley and the P76 looked the part and could have been good cars, unreliability proved to be a killer. Then along came the oil crisis in 1974 and the rise of ultra reliable and cheap to run Japanese cars.

    • Unreliability wasn’t a major problem with them. I had a Kimberley in the mid-1990s and it wanted to overheat on hot days until I cleaned out the radiator that had silted up through lack of use with its previous elderly owner. After that, it was roomiest and most luxurious Aussie car I’ve owned, with the exception of the ZF Fairlane I had later on. The X6 cars had small issues of build quality initially and word of mouth had a way of exaggerating it to the the point that the cars developed a bad image. They were certainly no worse than the Japanese opposition that came later.

      The single biggest reason sales were slow was because of Wheels magazine. They got hold of a rumour that the X6 range was only going to be a short stopgap model ahead of the big P76 project. As a result, a lot of potential customers saw no reason to buy a car that wasn’t going to marketed and dealer supported for very long. If you ever come across the January 1971 issue of Wheels, go to page 42 and see their damaging article “British Leyland Axes FWD.” The article wrongly reported, “The Tasman and Kimberley have just been released, but they will be replaced by an ever bigger six cylinder car with north-engine within 12 months.”

      That is now a forgotten chapter of Leyland Australia history, but it’s the main reason for the lukewarm sales. Of course it’s easier to believe now that the slow sales were because of shoddy build quality and woeful reliability.

  15. My father had a Tasman for about 20 years. It was huge inside, had a large boot. Transported our family of six on numerous holidays over the years. I drove it a few times when I first got my license in the early 80s. It had plenty of power and handled well. Looking back, I wish I’d taken it off his hands when he finally sold it.

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